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Engineering Mindset: Be a Stone Carver, not a Brick Mason
September 18, 2021

Table of Contents

Introduction

Maintaining the proper mindset is crucial to proper mental health and the longevity of your career. Many come to believe that engineering is linear and procedural, like a brick mason building a brick wall. The brick mason operates by adding more and more material; bigger is better, more expensive and more profitable.

A more effective mindset is that of the stone carver. Quality and craftsmanship are key for the stone carver. A stone carver designs one chisel stroke at a time. The stone carver removes what does not belong until the final design is revealed. For the stone carver, less is more: removing more material allows for more detail, more polish and represents an overall a higher quality piece of art.

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Don't be a Brick Mason

The life style you are accustomed in undergraduate school is not going to apply when you get to graduate school or to a commercial laboratory. In undergraduate everything is quantized, scheduled and designed for you. A degree is four years. Each year is two semesters. Each semester has four classes. Each class is 15 weeks long, with homework a midterm and final exam. Each class period is an hour and a half. Homework has to be turned in every week. All of the answers to the homework have been designed to have a definitive answer. The final has to be completed in two hours.

We can be deceived through years of academic experience that life is linear and procedural. This is the mindset of the brick mason. Consider the process it would take to design and build a brick wall:

  • Measure the dimensions of the wall
  • Determine how many bricks and how much mortar are needed
  • Buy the bricks and mortar
  • Lay all of the bricks on the first row
  • Lay all of the brings on the second row
  • Lay all of the bricks on the final row
  • The wall is complete

The brick mason mindset can be frustrated by changes to the schedule, unforeseen circumstances or changing the design in the middle of the process.

Be a Stone Carver

The real world is messy, unorganized and chaotic. You write a proposal for a new research proposal you think can work, but you don’t know for sure. Your requirements changed from the customer and now you need reduce the power draw of your system by 25%. Your supplier ran out of stock and now you need to find a replacement part before you ship your final system to the customer on Friday. You want to build a new receiver with a bandwidth ten-times as large as any system you have built prior.

The mindset of the stone carver is a better fit for the engineer. The stone carver has an idea about what needs to be accomplished and they may have drawn some sketches to help them visualize the end result. The stone carver removes what doesn’t belong from the design in order to accomplish their goal. The stone carver continually makes changes and reevaluates the design. The final design of the stone carver isn’t revealed until the last chisel is struck.

Stone Carver Mindset

The stone carver mindset recognizes the world is chaotic and unpredictable. The stone carver mindset has a direction and a set of tools to get them there, but is able and willing to adapt on the fly. With each chisel strike the stone carver:

  • Decides what change to be made
  • Evaluates the change
  • Does the change look appropriate?
  • Should similar, additional changes be made?
  • Or did I make a mistake and need to correct for it?
  • Is the design done? Would it be better if I stopped where I am at?

The stone carver removes what does not belong until the final design is revealed at the end. The stone carver mindset uses a continual process of development (make a change), testing (did the change look good), and evaluation (do I need to make another change or is the design done now?).

The Stone Carver mindset: create a masterpiece one chip at a time.
The Stone Carver mindset: create a masterpiece one chip at a time.

The stone carver mindset:

  • Allows for creativity, growth and learning
  • Understands mistakes and errors are part of the development process
  • Knows mistakes can be corrected
  • Is comfortable with uncertainty and not knowing every detail at the start
  • Adapts the design on the fly when faced with problems
  • Is flexible enough to work around or work with imperfections in the stone

Engineering Mindset

The stone carver removes the stone that does not belong to reveal the final design at the end. The job of the engineer is to remove all bad ideas from the solution space, revealing a functioning system at the end. The engineer tests new ideas along the way to see if they fit into the larger design. The engineering mindset recognizes the complexity of the laboratory environment and is comfortable with uncertainty. An engineering mindset will allow the design to change and adapt over time based on customer requirements, new technical knowledge or unexpected circumstances out of one’s control.

Takeaway

The appropriate mindset will set you up for career success and proper mental health. A proper mindset gives one the grace to make mistakes and transforms them into learning experiences. Be comfortable with uncertainty. Allow yourself the time and grace to grow, learn and improve over time. Be a stone carver, not a brick mason.

Do yourself a favor and watch a couple minutes of the two YouTube videos above. How do they make you feel? Which would you rather be?

Don’t forget these blog posts on the engineering mindset!

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